Cutler never changes much. That’s one of the things people love about it.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
Photograph by Leslie Bowman
Wind and rain rattled windows all along the Down East coast on the eve of Palm Sunday in April. By daybreak, the storm had built to a frenzy. Power lines, branches, and whole trees littered roadways. At Acadia National Park, rangers closed Thunder Hole and Otter Cliffs and ordered thirteen campers to leave Blackwoods Campground.
Sixty miles east in Machias, the river rushed over the Route 1 causeway and seawater overwhelmed the town’s storm-water system, flooding Court Street. Another eighteen miles southeast, a small crowd gathered on the beach at Cutler Harbor, ready to assist two dozen or so fishermen who had donned survival suits and were boarding their tiny skiffs to save a lobsterboat that had broken loose from its moorings. It was peak high tide with a two-foot storm surge. The wind was blowing 60 miles per hour. Every time a wave hit, the boat slammed against the shore with a sickening crunch.
(VIDEO: Down East Senior Writer Virginia M. Wright and her son Dan recently hiked the Cutler Coast Preserve. Click on this video to see their adventures.)
“The guy who owned it had just moved here,” recalls Stephen Cates, who was among the lobstermen on the water that morning. “He was so down and out, he didn’t know what he was going to do. Bob Lemieux brought his big skidder down to the beach, and we finally managed to get the boat up on the trailer. Bob hauled it up to his place, and he completely overhauled it. Now it’s better than it was to begin with.”
The lobstermen helped their new neighbor because it was the right thing to do, but that wasn’t the only reason. They also were protecting their livelihoods: a storm-tossed boat is a threat to every other boat in the harbor. When you live in an isolated community of five hundred people, you do kind things, even heroic things, simply because they need to be done.
“In small towns, there are longstanding grudges and then there are opportunities for healing and reconciliation,” observes Delia Mae Farris, who watched the boat rescue from her home on the east side of the harbor. “It’s important once in a while to have a happy event, like our Fourth of July celebration, to bring us together, but sometimes it’s a tragedy or an almost-tragedy like the Palm Sunday storm.”
A storyteller and writer, Farris, 64, assesses her hometown with a returnee’s perspective. Her father, Glenn Farris, was a respected lobsterman and lobster dealer. Her mother, Ruth Corbett Farris, was a beloved town matriarch who grew up in the Little River lighthouse keeper’s house on an island in the harbor and who chronicled life in Cutler for the local newspaper for more than thirty years. Nearly every house in Cutler has a collection of Ruth Farris’ miniature seabirds, carved from scraps of wood she found along the shore.
As for Delia Mae, she moved back to her hometown last year after living and working on Maine’s midcoast for many years. When she speaks of a cycle of disagreements and détentes, she is not referring to any specific issue, just the usual give-and-take that defines life in any small town — or any extended family, for that matter. Cutler happens to be both.
Farris. Corbett. Cates. Lemieux. Those names and a few others are deeply intertwined in Cutler’s social fabric — sometimes confusingly so to the newcomer. Just up the street, for example, lives another Cutler matriarch named Ruth Farris, who is married to Delia Mae’s second cousin, John. Across from Ruth lives Allie Corbett, the widow of Delia Mae’s Uncle Neil. And a few houses away are Terry and Cynthia Cates Rowden whose nephew, Nicky Lemieux, is also Delia Mae’s nephew. “There is a web of family connections,” Delia Mae affirms. “We just kind of live it, but sometimes it’s fun to try to untangle it. Everyone is woven together, you see. I can look up town and see many of my relatives’ houses, and they can see mine. We live in a fish bowl. To live that way requires real skills in small-town etiquette and appreciation for each person’s need for privacy. You live your own lives with as much dignity as you possibly can in a live-and-let live way, but when there’s an emergency, we’re all there for each other.”
One of the most splendid coastal byways in Maine, Route 191 — the Cutler Road — leaves East Machias and follows the shore of expansive Machias Bay for thirteen miles before looping back to rejoin Route 1 in Lubec. It’s there, on the road’s outermost curve, that one finds Cutler village, a string of primly painted old homes facing a narrow harbor in the mouth of the Little River. Two churches, a fire station, and a small ranch-style town office are all there is to this downtown; the only store closed years ago.
Instead, the harbor is the center of commerce. Many of the sixty-one boats that comprise Cutler’s commercial fishing fleet have moorings here, as does the town’s lone tourist-oriented business, the Bold Coast Charter Company, which offers scenic cruises and puffin-watching trips. Wire lobster traps and bright blue storage crates are stacked high on the piers. Open ocean glints behind Little River Island, a five-minute boat ride from shore. The island’s 135-year-old lighthouse is hidden from view — it stands guard where it is needed, facing the Atlantic and sounding a foghorn every ten seconds, day and night.
To the west, Cutler is defined by wildflower-filled meadows stretching to Machias Bay and by a two-square-mile cluster of antenna towers — twenty-six in all, stretching 800 to 1,000 feet above the grasslands of Sprague Neck. On this this sparsely developed coastal landscape, the spindly towers are at once jarring and oddly beautiful. They comprise the forty-three-year-old Cutler Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station, which transmits VLF (very low frequency) signals to ships and submarines in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It is one of the most powerful radio transmission stations in the world.
To the east is the Bold Coast — enormous sea cliffs that rival those along Acadia National Park’s famous Park Loop Road. But there is no sightseeing road here, only a hiking trail off Route 191 that traverses 1 1/2 miles of fir forest and cedar bog before reaching the first of several open headlands towering over crashing waves. The rugged trail, which follows high, jagged cliffs, coves, and cobble beaches for more than five miles, is commonly called the Bold Coast Trail, but officially it is the Coastal Trail of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands’ 12,000-acre Cutler Coast Unit. Together with adjacent parcels owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, these lands are Maine’s largest coastal wilderness, home to the state’s iconic moose, black bear, and bobcat, as well as a number of rare plants. In summer, humpback, northern right, finback, and minke whales surface in the waters offshore, and clear days yield views of New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island nine miles away.
More than two-thirds of Cutler’s forty-seven square miles, in fact, is conservation land (other large parcels include the navy’s 2,000-acre Sprague Neck Bar, whose grasslands support migrating shorebirds, and the Cross Island National Wildlife Refuge in Machias Bay). “We won’t have any development on both sides of the harbor,” says Kristan Porter, a fisherman who chairs the board of selectman. “In most towns on the midcoast those places would be lined with million-dollar houses. We’re also so remote. That doesn’t mean that development isn’t working itself this way or that when the economy turns around and people have more income to blow they won’t be here, but as of now, Cutler has stayed pretty local. It’s good in that we keep our identity, but not so good in that we’re not growing as a town.”
A sense of timelessness envelops the community. It is, many locals agree, much as it was decades ago. “These are very old families who live here,” says Delia Mae Farris. “A lot of the fishermen in town can still see their boats from their homes. They can see the ocean out behind the island. This is so important to judge the weather and take after the safety of the boats. Up until this point we’ve been able to weather the increased property taxes — most of us have a view and we’re taxed for it and we’re going to feel the squeeze more and more.”
Allie Corbett, 92, moved to Cutler from Lubec in 1946, when she married her husband Neil, a lobsterman. For many years, they had a business selling fishermen’s supplies from the wharf a few steps from her front door. She has seen a sardine factory open and close, and she watched the navy station grow to three hundred enlisted personnel and then gradually shrink to a handful of people. But, she says, Cutler’s essential rhythms seem to have been largely unaffected by such developments. “It hasn’t changed much at all,” she reflects, “except people used to call on each other more. Now they like to get out early to lobster fish, so they go to bed early.”
Indeed, lobstering has supplanted other forms of fishing as the primary occupation in Cutler. Most of the sixty-one boats in the local fleet are owned by Cutler men. They in turn employ one or two people, mostly Cutler men. That is more than half of the town’s labor force, which is why Cutler, though far from wealthy, is faring better than its Washington County neighbors (11 percent of Cutler’s 510 residents live below the poverty line compared to 17 percent countywide). “Lobstering is very lucrative,” Farris says. “It supports a nice family structure. You can look ahead and plan to have children because you have an income you can depend on — we hope.”
Lobsterman Jasper Cates Jr. gets much of the credit for preserving Cutler’s lands and way of life. It was Cates who led the charge against an oil refinery proposed for Machias Bay in the late sixties, and Cates who worked for four years in the early nineties to protect the Bold Coast after a developer wanted to build thirty-two high-end homes along those wild cliffs. “My father loves Cutler’s quiet fishing village atmosphere,” Cates’ daughter, Cynthia Rowden, says. “It is his passion. He saw all the other parts of the coast being swallowed by development. He wanted Cutler to stay the way it was.” (Cates, 87, lives in a nursing facility in Machias and was not available for an interview.)
Cates also was instrumental in rescuing Little River Lighthouse, where Cynthia’s husband, Terry, was once stationed with the United States Coast Guard. Abandoned by the Coast Guard in 1974, it was slated for demolition a few years later, but Cates sent protest letters to every government official he thought could help. Eventually, the Coast Guard relented.
But what the wrecking ball couldn’t destroy, neglect, it seemed, would. For the next quarter-century, the cast iron tower and wood-frame keeper’s house sat empty and untended. By the time the property was offered up for adoption through the Maine Lights Program in 1999, the tower was rusting away and the house’s roof had collapsed. Cates and Delia Mae Farris invited Timothy Harrison, then living in Wells and serving as president of the American Lighthouse Foundation, to come have a look. “Everyone was saying it was too remote and too expensive to restore,” Harrison recalls. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, we can save this.’ I was pretty cocky. It took us twenty years.”
Today the lighthouse keeper’s house offers the only guest lodging in the town of Cutler (207-259-3833; littleriverlight.org). “It’s a little expensive, but you get a million dollar view and a free boat ride,” says Harrison, who remains deeply involved in caring for the property (a never-ending task in this harsh climate). “This lighthouse is why I bought a house here,” continues Harrison, now president of Friends of Little River Light, an American Lighthouse Foundation chapter. “I fell in love with area and the people.”
Two years ago, a large crowd gathered at the grade school for a potluck supper honoring Jasper Cates for his role in saving the lighthouse, but the speeches delivered that night made it clear that Cates was also being celebrated for all the other good works he’d done, especially his efforts to stop construction of the oil refinery and to preserve the Bold Coast. These were divisive issues at their time, but Cates never backed down. “He‘s persistent,” son Stephen Cates says. “He got his way.”
Honoring elders is a longstanding Cutler tradition. Ruth Farris — Delia Mae’s mother — was similarly feted, as were Arlene Dennison, Neil Corbett, and many others who served the town. Benefits are another Cutler custom.
Not too long ago, the community held a fundraiser for a neighbor who was seriously injured when he fell while building a tree stand. “We raised $15,000,” Stephen Cates says. “He’s now in a wheelchair, but he’s back to fishing, and he is just as happy as can be. That’s why I love this town. If someone gets down on his luck or something happens, the people are right there for them.”
“We have our differences, but everyone gets along for the most part,” agrees Kristan Porter. “We’re small enough so that if anyone gest sick or has an accident, someone is right there to help. There are no secrets.”
- By: Virginia M. Wright